“I love conversations,” says Charlotte Chandler, with a contagious enthusiasm that offers a clue as to how she persuaded some of Hollywood’s greatest icons—Mae West, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Ingrid Bergman and more—to talk, talk, talk.
In Chandler’s latest, Marlene (Simon and Schuster), Marlene Dietrich speaks of her career and life. When the interviews took place in 1977, the film icon, then 76, lived in Paris in a self-imposed exile that eventually spanned 10 years. Here, Chandler tells us about the conversations that have resulted in a full shelf of her film biographies:
Read more of Charlotte Chandler's Hollywood biographies.
You’ve had great success getting interviews, in some cases with people known to be difficult subjects. How do you do it?
I was very lucky in getting Groucho Marx for my first book (Hello, I Must Be Going: Groucho and His Friends). Someone gave me his phone number, and I called him when I was in California. He said he told Life Magazine he wouldn’t do the interview for $25,000. He told me he wouldn’t do an interview with me for $35,000. He invited me to dinner and at the end of the evening he said, “Why aren’t you writing?”
[After that] I was extremely lucky in that I had good introductions. Groucho introduced me to Billy Wilder [for Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder, a Personal Biography]. Henri Langlois introduced me to Alfred Hitchcock [for It’s Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock, A Personal Biography]. I came to know George Cukor, who introduced me to Katharine Hepburn [for I Know Where I’m Going: Katharine Hepburn, a Personal Biography]. Bette Davis called me; she’s the only one who ever did [for The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, A Personal History]. Mary Meerson [of the Cinematheque Francaise] provided an introduction to Dietrich.
Were any of your subjects difficult to work with?
I can’t say that they were. Once they agreed to do it, they worked hard. They came early; they came on time. They were extremely articulate. These people were all proud of their accomplishments, as they might well be. They were all icons.
These icons belong to Hollywood’s Golden Age. Do we have similar film icons today?
I think they don’t have the opportunity to make so many films or to develop themselves. One talks to them after they’ve done three films. They also haven’t lived their lives yet. It’s fun when they’ve lived exciting lives. They bring a kind of wisdom with them.
Americans can be xenophobic. How did Dietrich’s European sensibilities go over when she began making films in Hollywood in the 1930s?
There isn’t a lot of room [in America] for very many actresses who speak with a heavy foreign accent, but apparently there was plenty of room for her. People said she was going to be another Garbo. She wasn’t. She was Marlene Dietrich.
Did you ever try to interview Garbo?
I didn’t interview her, but I went to her home with King Vidor and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. She was so involved in herself and in bitterness over what didn’t happen. She felt she’d been wronged. That always makes for a very bad interview because it’s so ordinary; it’s sort of small.
Was Dietrich bitter?
She was certainly not bitter at all. She loved what happened to her. She didn’t expect anything like [her career] to happen in life. She felt she owed her great life to Josef Von Sternberg who gave her the part of Lola Lola [in The Blue Angel].
What were Dietrich’s distinctive qualities?
She was extremely intelligent. She cared more about her image than anyone else with whom I spoke. She was willing to go into a kind of seclusion, which became a permanent retirement in which she spent nearly a decade alone not seeing anyone except her daughter and grandson and a person who came in to clean. All that was self-imposed, even when she was in good health, because she didn’t feel she looked like Marlene Dietrich anymore and to look like Marlene Dietrich was more than she could do.
Did she look like Marlene Dietrich when you saw her [at age 76]?
Absolutely. She hadn’t worked [as] hard on [her appearance] a she might have. She had on her make-up and she’d had her hair fixed and she was nicely dressed. But she told me she didn’t put the kind of effort into [her appearance] as she might have if I’d been a man.
Was she lucid?
Absolutely. As far as I know she was totally lucid all her life. But she didn’t want to deal with the public. She didn’t want to be judged.
What was her life like at this time?
She was very short of money. She had lived her life very extravagantly. She’d had a premonition as a young girl that she was going to die very young and very tragically. She felt she should get everything out of every minute. She spent her money as she got it and didn’t save for [her] old age, which was much longer than she’d ever planned. When she saw me, she said it was too late to die young.